WHY WE ALL NEED CONAN O’BRIEN
PSYCHOLOGY + THE UNICORN
I have a lot of topics lined up to discuss on these Theory segments, but sometimes they get pushed and pulled by things going on in my own life, or by what’s living in my head that I just can’t stop thinking about. That’s true for this week. Turns out I’m obsessed with a certain tall and lanky freckled face redhead. While I had planned on discussing something a lot more linear I just can’t shake the news that my best late night bud is leaving. Today, I'm going to talk about Conan O'Brien. And unicorns. Turns out they are not that different.
I get asked a lot about psychotherapy. What is it? How does it work? How do I find a good therapist? But what I almost never get asked, is actually the most important question of all, why is psychotherapy important? And I'll preface this episode with saying that my answer is outside of the usual professional answer, but I myself exist somewhere outside of the usual professional answer. If you are an avid listener to the podcast, you must be used to that by now. So, I'm going to begin our discussion of why psychotherapy is important, with none other than the man, the legend, the unicorn of late night comedy, Conan O'Brien.
It was announced recently that after 28 years of late night television Conan O'Brien is leaving the role of late night host for a weekly show on HBO Max. For those of you keeping score, late night television refers to shows that air 5 nights a week and usually revolve around 4 or 5 full days of work a week beginning in the early morning and recording in the early evening. I get why someone would want to leave. I understand why after so many years, it would be time to move on. More power to you Conan.
Late night host is a grueling job and one cannot even attempt it without an inexhaustible drive to make people feel good before they go to bed. It's an honorable role. Metabolizing the events of the day and presenting them to us as humor. A major reframe, especially the last 4 years, and a really lovely gift to unwrap each night before bed. It's kind of like saying, no matter how bad all that felt, there's still a reason to laugh, go to bed, and start all over again tomorrow. Conan doesn't make it easier, but he definitely has made it better. For 28 years. And that's big. Those of us who spend the night with Conan, we all owe him a debt of gratitude. And probably a hug.
In my own life, Conan O'Brien has filled a sustained role over time that no one else could. When I was a struggling teen in high school Conan was there. Not as a friend. Not as a parent, but an outside voice. When I went on to college, he was there, helping me meet new people, laughing together. Living abroad, he was there - you know of course you can watch Conan in Ireland. When I moved to California without knowing a single soul Conan helped me feel like I had a friend, and when my daughter was born, he stayed up with me when I was scared shitless, trying to learn how to be a mom to this vulnerable little being I suddenly loved more than anything in the world. He was with me when I needed to be alone, even when needing to be alone felt really, really, lonely.
The real important thing to grasp here about my relationship with Conan - and yeah I'm calling it a relationship, I'm good with that - is that his being with me, consistently, without me having to be there for him, let me repeat that, because this is important - Conan being there for me without me having to be there for him, is a relationship that no one else can provide. It's a one sided equation. And that's BIG.
So, here's where psychology comes into this equation. It's about the relationship. And this is why psychotherapy is important. The relationship between psychotherapist, psychologist, psychiatrist and patient is one that cannot be replicated anywhere else. It just can't. And the most important thing about this unicorn of a relationship is that we need it.
The individual parts of this equation break down real easily for me when I think of parenthood. Here's how. We do not choose our kids. Most of the time. But nearly all of the time, even if we choose our children, our children do not choose us. And as hard as we may try as parents, we are not always the parent our children need. Not in the moment, and sometimes not in the larger sense. And that's okay. We work with what we've got. And we've got each other and that's a lot - I'm just going to finish up the Bon Jovi lyric here - for love let's give it a shot. Oh we’re halfway there. Living on a prayer, etc and so forth.
Even if we start out being the exact parent our children need, we simply cannot be that person 100% of the time 24 hours a day. If there was never a better time to recognize this, it's now, am I right? Ooof. We parents have our own stuff, our own lives, work, partners, pets, parents, family, that inspire us, impact us, impinge upon us, and also contribute to our own emotional trash. And let's face it, sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, we are terrible at taking out the trash. The same goes for partners. It is simply unfair to expect a unicorn of a relationship from a partner. We, parents, children, partners, go through life together, as a team. And while that team includes support and cheerleading, listening, and attention, it is not always available in the size, shape and form that we need. And that's okay. Let's stop expecting ourselves to be the unicorn and stop expecting others to be the unicorn for us. A unicorn is a magical fucking animal. It doesn't really exist. At least not 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
So here's where the importance of psychotherapy comes in. For one hour, once a week, give or take a few, we can have a unicorn. We can have that person who is attentive to just our needs, listening only to us, providing feedback only to us, responding only to us, cheerleading only to us. Checking ourselves before we wreck ourselves. And here's the kick ass part, it exists without us needing to give anything back to this person, except to pay and show up on time. Now that's not to say psychotherapy doesn't require work, it does. It's a lot of work taking out the trash. It's messy, heavy, and it can smell like shit. No matter, put on some gloves, breathe through your nose, do the heavy lifting, and be glad there is a unicorn there who will help you empty your pail. But the cool thing about this work is that it doesn't require reciprocity. You do not need to care about your therapist's emotional life. In fact it's good not to. You are not responsible for helping your therapist take out their trash. Ever. You care about the lives of enough people. Your decisions directly impact plenty of people on your team. What makes this relationship so fucking magical is that your therapist can be who you need them to be. Every. Single. Time. And that consistency is what helps us feel safe, grow, change, heal, repair, and keep emptying our emotional trash. That's why psychotherapy is critically important. That's why it works. Because it is a relationship that is one sided and only takes place for a short enough period of time where this kind of relationship is sustainable and possible. Hallelujah.
Often when I present the idea of this unicorn relationship, there is a rub. A threat. You mean, I'm not everything to my kid? I'm not everything to my partner? No. Hell no. And you shouldn't try to be. Especially not 24/7. In fact most conflict within relationships, whether it parental or partners, stems from disappointment in not getting what we need. And totally. The moment we are born we are rushed into a world where our needs are no longer being automatically met. Out of the womb, cut the cord. Fuck, right?! We start from here. Ouch. And not only is it hard to give what is needed all the time, but it's also really hard to ask for what's needed. Better yet, oftentimes we do not even really know what we need, how to communicate what we need or how to give what is needed. It's a miracle we can get through the day with each other. It's complex, right? The unicorn is not in competition. I repeat, there is no competition. The unicorn is a teammate. A relationship that helps repair the misses and directs us in better understanding the nature of our needs, how to better meet them ourselves and gain more clarity to our own limitations and capacity in ourselves and others. These expectations we hold ourselves to, our partners, our children, have them, yes, but understand that a perfect meeting of needs cannot be met alongside the complexities of modern life. The key is to love each other enough to appreciate when a need cannot be met completely, apologize with love when we are not meeting our kids and partners where they need us to. Agree to try harder next time and be forgiving of each other when we cannot exactly read the complex code of expectations that sometimes we cannot even understand and communicate clearly to ourselves.
It is a code and one that takes a clear mind empty of emotional trash to get it right.
So back to Conan O’Brien, unicorns and what they have in common with psychotherapists. Conan is the first one to admit that he loves what he does. In fact, I’ve heard him say that being in front of an audience is kind of like breathing. He needs it. It serves him. Him serving us, serves him too. And that’s incredible. Those late nights learning how to be a mom, scared, excited, tired, awake, as much as I relied on him to meet me there, same time, same channel, he wanted me there. On the other side of the screen. Taking without giving. Being one side of the equation, not crossing the line. It worked for us both.
When it comes to psychotherapy, I’ve said before on this podcast that there are people who choose to do this work. Love this work. And do it really well. They want to put the gloves on, get messy and lend a hand in helping us take out our trash. Serving us, serves them. It’s a pleasure. I promise. And it being their job, helping us, is exactly why it works. They can concentrate an hour a week to us. Our thoughts, our desires, our emotional states. And that gives them the perspective needed to provide us with this unicorn of a thing. It’s a job. It’s a service. And It’s a pleasure. Because psychotherapy is a magical unicorn and we all deserve to ride the rainbow.
Thank you for being here.
Listen to this episode of JOY IS NOW here.